When you ask Andrew Stawicki what made the Child Poverty exhibit such a success, he closes his eyes and simply says, "June Callwood, June Callwood, June Callwood."
June and the PhotoSensitive team had danced together before 2000, but now they stepped up the tempo, and went into full swing for the children of Canada.
In 1989, the House of Commons had unanimously promised that by the year 2000, child poverty in Canada would be eliminated. In 1999, PhotoSensitive wanted to show that not only was child poverty not going away, it was growing.
Peter Robertson felt instinctively that June was the person to make sure these photographs were seen and understood. She was a highly respected journalist and social activist and was well known for her ability to get things done. She was quick-witted, strong-minded, articulate and, well, gorgeous, with snow-white hair and twinkling eyes - eyes that shone with intelligence and, occasionally, impatience. She didn't suffer fools gladly.
Peter knew June through her husband, columnist Trent (Bill) Frayne. He invited her to look at the first photographs they'd received for Child Poverty: A National Disgrace.
"To make change, it's necessary to show the world there are things that need our attention, even things we'd rather not see. You need to shine the light in the corner sometimes. And that can bring criticism on you for exposing people - taking advantage of people - in dire circumstances. And can make some twitchy about shining the light on little kids living in poverty. So I thought, we need someone from outside to take a good, critical look at these first shots of the children, someone with a journalistic point of view, someone with integrity and good judgment. We made up all these prints, called June over and showed her the prints, and said, 'This is what we've done so far...' Maybe ten minutes later, she was in tears. She said, 'This is wonderful stuff — and what can I do?'
"I think I can honestly say that June fell in love with us. We certainly did with her. So over a lot of years—from then on really - every time a project came along, we would ask her to write something and what she came up with was always wonderful," said Peter.
The Child Poverty exhibit drew rave reviews. It had photographs from across the country with text from June, and was showcased in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. As politicians were trying to put child poverty into some kind of polite perspective, the PhotoSensitive pictures and June's prose were shining a light and exposing what was really happening - in the cities, in small towns, in Aboriginal communities, in downtown centres.
Striking images from Child Poverty: A National Disgrace
Images from the exhibition show that poverty is found in all of Canada's major cities and provinces and the problem knows no ethnic or racial bounds. Some of the most striking photos in the exhibit captured children at play, children learning, or merely looking deadpan at the camera, showing that these could be anyone's kids. The variety of images from places as far afield as Winnipeg, Edmonton and Nova Scotia show that children living in poverty truly is a national disgrace.
Kaitlynn and her sister Ellen were two arresting faces in the exhibit. They are part of a large rural family in Ontario. Two of six children in the family, their parents find it a challenge to put food on the table.
Cody celebrates his third birthday with a piece of birthday cake, in this photo by Noel Chenier. Cody lives in low income housing in Fredericton, NB. While his mother, Lise, made sure he had cake to celebrate his birthday, many days are not as happy, as she cares for Cody and his two siblings.
Child poverty among Canada's native populace
Poverty among Canada's native population is a problem and photographers including Phil Hossack and Lucas Oleniuk captured children both on reserves and off reserve in cities like Edmonton and Winnipeg, where their parents struggle to make ends meet. Phil's image of 13-month-old Jamie looking plaintively at the camera, while his mother and brother make lunch, tells a pithy story of a child living with not quite enough.
Lucas Oleniuk's picture of Jesse and Jacob making their own breakfast perfectly captures the state of many impoverished children on Canada's reserves. Their mother Bonnie is single, and the family lives in a trailer on the Little Red River Cree Nation Reserve in Northern Alberta.
Many of these images stand as companion pieces with other images of first nations peoples in the PhotoSensitive canon, including projects like Summer of Hope. We hope we captured both the plight of and hope for the future among Candaa' native population.
Other images in the exhibit captured children from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, the streets of Vancouver, the housing projects of Toronto, among many other places across the country.
Beyond the Photo Exhibit
Campaign 2000, which partnered with PhotoSensitive for the project, is still working hard to eliminate child poverty. The job is far from over. The 1989 promise to eliminate child poverty by 2000 rings hollow: In 2010, one in ten children in Canada lives in poverty. One in every four children in First Nations communities is growing up poor.
Peter Robertson says June usually shrugged off the moniker as 'Canada's conscience' but she certainly never let the PhotoSensitive team waltz into complacency. She died in April 2007, but her spirit—and her intention to make things happen - continues to shine, sometimes through the lens of a PhotoSensitive photographer. And he can still hear her scolding them all, shortly after the Child Poverty exhibition was over.
"We were all patting ourselves on the back and June interrupted us and said, 'I've had enough of this - what are you guys doing next, what's the next project!?' She kept us honest - offering us a kick in the behind every so often. And so, we kept going forward. Instead of letting us brag, 'Look at what we've done,' June reminded us that there was always something very important waiting in the wings that needed our attention," said Peter
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